Ryan Welch was barely 21 when he first attended the alternative Saturday-night Miami dance party Poplife. It was around 2007, and the musician was helping with the night's festivities by backing the prolific local legend Dino Felipe and playing a keyboard that wasn't even plugged in. Welch thinks they might have been opening for the French electro group Dat Politics.
"It felt special to be there, like a part of Miami that I didn't know existed," he recalls. He sweat the night away dancing under club lights in a room brimming with balloons and glitter. At the time, Poplife took place in the Design District venue Piccadilly. It had a patio with a little brick pond (which some guests mights have fallen into), a well-worn dance floor, and a room dedicated to hip-hop and electronic music. Although detailed memories of the venue have been lost to the sands of time, what remains is a haze of drinking, dancing till feet hurt, and gossiping until dawn.
"It felt exclusive almost, even though anyone could get in," Welch chuckles. "It was one of the coolest places." At Poplife, he met some of the most creative Miamians of the time — people who became integral parts of his life in later years. (Full disclosure: Welch is my partner and the father of my son. We didn't meet at Poplife, but we probably crossed paths there.)
Originally intended to spread Britpop tunes, Poplife became a classic Miami party for the hip elite and their friends. This year marks the party-turned-production company's 20th anniversary of bringing culture, fun, and tons of music to the Magic City. Just last week, New Times interviewed one of its founders — Aramis Lorie — and other Poplife fixtures to mark the occasion. Though it's had a somewhat revolving cast of promoters over the years, Lorie started Poplife alongside original partners Barbara Basti and Ray and Paula Milian. They launched the party — which was designed for the most red-lipped, black-straight-haired budding adults living in South Florida — at Mezza Fine Art, a now-defunct gallery in Coral Gables. It later moved to Piccadilly, where there was more room for people to stand around talking about how they had been going to Poplife since it was at Mezza.
Poplife was a meeting point for local bands to play and interact with bigger-name acts. Nationally touring musicians typically didn't make South Florida stops back then, so it was always exciting when Poplife brought them to town with the money from many a gulped drink and a small door charge everyone complained about.
I remember the first time I went to Piccadilly to see my friend play in a band, and as Welch says, it was indeed like opening a door into another Miami. Not long out of college, I was used to bar-hopping in Coconut Grove or schmoozing and boozing in South Beach, with its posh hotels, dark-roomed drum 'n' bass nights, and electronic music megaclubs. Poplife wasn’t the sort of party to be defined solely by people drinking or dancing or posing for a camera: It was about being part of a scene, with various mini-cliques of people drinking, dancing, and posing for a camera, and everyone was united by a collective love and respect for music, art, and fashion.
An encounter with Matt Damon at a Poplife party in 2009 helped lead me to my current career. I had just started a blog about local culture and nightlife, Miami, Bro. On a chance Saturday night at Poplife, I saw Jason Bourne (or as I called him, "Lara Croft or something") out with some pals. They wouldn't let me take his picture, so I finally stopped hesitating and went in paparazzi-style. His entourage began screaming, "This isn't a zoo!" but Poplife was kind of like a zoo at that time: We were all on display, and everyone was posing for photographer Jipsy's iconic photos. My blog post about the night went viral in Miami following a New Times writeup and furious comments from Damon's fans. Thanks to Poplife and Matt Damon, I was soon asked to write about this shit for money. How do like them apples?
Around that same time, I went to a Poplife-hosted concert by the funky soul singer Jamie Lidell at Miami Beach's Heathrow Lounge. The club was open for a Miami minute before fading into history, but that night, it was filled with life. My friends and I knew the Poplife drill at that point: We knew we could wear whatever weird thing we wanted (I wore a white jumpsuit with a giraffe print) and were confident we could get into all kinds of mischief and be allowed back the next week. When Lidell left the stage, we pounced on him for a photo. Unlike Matt Damon, though, he smiled sweetly through his sweat for fans.
There were other parties of the era that complemented but were not linked to Poplife, such as Thursday night's Spiderpussy and Friday night's Revolver. There was something to do every night and always new creative or cool people to meet. When you're young and living in a city that's going through the adolescent phase of its cultural development, intimacy is somehow easier, and meeting likeminded people feels invigorating and inspirational. From parties like these, Miami's creative communities found kinship, a shared social experience, and a ton of trouble.
Miami native Gabriel Morales is a friend I danced many nights with at Poplife. He first found his way to the gathering in 2000: It was the second-anniversary party, and promoters were doing a door giveaway of USB sticks containing music from indie acts such as the Shins. "Mostly, it felt like a weekly house party," Morales says, recalling a pleasant, comforting feeling each time he attended. "I'd show up alone and know half the people there... People were interesting and intelligent, a refreshing deviation from the typical dumb Miami club scene. I walked in the first time and heard David Bowie, Björk, Underworld, and Radiohead, and I felt like I'd come home."
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Morales' experience was shared by many other locals who found community through Poplife.
The legendary party has moved several times, but it has maintained the connections it helped forge by throwing countless events. Piccadilly closed and turned into the District, prompting Poplife's move to i/o in Overtown, where it continued to be the party you told out-of-town friends they could not miss. Poplife was also housed at White Room in Overtown, Wynwood's Electric Pickle, and Post, a venue in the Roads. The people behind Poplife eventually opened Grand Central, a massive concert space in downtown Miami that hosted parties such as Peachfuzz and concerts by a variety of musicians, including Daniel Johnston, Eric B. & Rakim, Tune-Yards, and Gang of Four. In more recent years, the company left the brick-and-mortar life behind and became a roving production company taking live music and memorable DJ sets to locations such as Pérez Art Museum Miami.
Poplife is set to celebrate its big 2-0 at the new ATV Records this Saturday, November 9, with accompanying T-shirts and a special-edition book produced alongside Dale Zine. Lloydski, Ray Milian, Aramis Lorie, Benton, Michelle Leshem, Patrick Walsh, Jessica Who, and with other special guests and Miami nightlife heroes will spin music. It's as good a time as any to slap on your blackest outfit and boldest lips, remember how to dance in the dark, and reminisce about how this old party shaped the Miami we know today.
Poplife 20th Anniversary. With Aramis Lorie, Benton, Lloydski, Ray Milian, Mike Deuce, and others. 10 p.m. Saturday, November 9, at ATV Records, 1306 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Admission is free with RSVP via poplife20.splashthat.com.